Striking North Korea: “Bloody Nose” or Bloody Disaster?

By Douglas Macgregor

Following the Winter Olympic games, South Korean President Moon Jae-in indicated he was ready to talk to North Korea and engage in hard-lined diplomacy.  And while, Vice President Pence—who earlier announced severe sanctions—first signaled a willingness to talk, he quickly seemed to change course. President Trump further indicated the administration is considering a preventive strike as part of “Phase 2” if the sanctions failed to denuclearize North Korea.

The so-called “bloody nose” strike against North Korean missile sites and alleged nuclear facilities stands an excellent chance of becoming a bloody disaster. China won't tolerate an unprovoked attack on North Korea, and President Moon of the Republic of Korea (ROK), will not support the use of ROK Forces as part of a U.S. military strike against North Korea.

Koreans in the south loathe Kim Jong-un’s regime in Pyongyang, but very few think that initiating a war on the Peninsula will hasten reunification, let alone lead to lasting peace. In fact, 59 percent of South Koreans oppose a preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

Consequently, if President Trump authorizes military action against North Korea, the most probable outcome will be war with China and the immediate expulsion of U.S. Forces from South Korea. President Moon will have no other choice if he is to avoid conflict with China.

And, contrary to expectations in Washington, Tokyo will decline to participate in Washington’s “bloody nose” extravaganza in any meaningful way. Tokyo will privately welcome a conflict that removes North Korea from the map, but Tokyo will not put the Japanese home islands at risk to help Washington in its war with China.

The net result will be embarrassment on a global scale for Washington and the American people. The Trump Presidency may well be destroyed.

On the other hand, it’s useful to point out that President Xi Jinping of China has actually cooperated with Washington to push North Korea to the brink of economic implosion. Xi has told Mr. Kim that if he attacks his neighbors or the U.S., Beijing will not assist North Korea in any way.

The importance of Xi’s stance to U.S. military planners cannot be overstated. Military planning is always based on a mix of known capabilities relating to friendly and opposing weapon systems, as well as, unknowable aspects of a potential opponent’s behavior. Predictably, in American military planning, untested assumptions are often frequently shaped by wishful thinking.

Fortunately for Washington, President Xi has taken precautions to disabuse Washington of any wishful thinking. If Washington initiates hostilities against North Korea, China will not sit on the sidelines.

According to South Korean sources, if Washington initiates hostilities against North Korea, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Northern Theater Command is preparing the Chinese 78th Army Group, for intervention on the ground to cope with the potential collapse of the North Korean State.

The Northern Theater Command in Manchuria also includes the 79th Army Group. Together, the two Chinese Army Groups positioned in Manchuria field 855 tanks, 819 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, 200 self-propelled guns, rocket artillery, missile defense units, support troops, and several hundred attack aircraft—a force of roughly 300,000.

None of these points suggest that America’s nuclear arsenal could not quickly and thoroughly erase Pyongyang and the North Korean State from the map. That’s something that Washington can accomplish, but a high end conventional conflict with China on the Korean Peninsula is a contingency for which the U.S. Armed Forces are not prepared. Any use of nuclear weapons to compensate for U.S. conventional military weakness—regardless of yield—would likely trigger a nuclear exchange with China that no sane person wants.

It is time to reconsider the wisdom of military action against North Korea. In their first meeting, President Moon asked President Trump to accelerate the transfer of wartime command of all Korean and U.S. Armed Forces on the Korean Peninsula to a Korean Army Four Star. President Trump was perplexed.

The President’s advisors had not prepared him for the question. For decades, a U.S. Army Four Star has exercised absolute authority over the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC), the warfighting headquarters responsible for the defense and, if necessary, the defeat of external aggression against the Republic of Korea.

President Moon Jae-in is the latest Korean leader to conclude that without unambiguous Korean National command authority over the armed forces on its soil, 49 million Koreans with an economy larger than Russia’s, is not a sovereign nation. President Moon has a point.

The truth is that Washington is not equipped to “solve the problem” on the Korean Peninsula, largely because the problem is not ours to solve. The ROK is a brilliant success story for both the Korean and American peoples. The United States mission on the Korean Peninsula is complete.

Seoul, not Washington, must now work with Beijing and Tokyo to solve the problem. For Washington, step one is to signal American support for President Moon’s initiative of an inter-Korean dialogue.

Step two is to turn over command of the CFC to a Korean Four Star as soon as possible. Make it clear that the destiny of the Korean People rests in the hands of President Moon and his people, not Washington.

Colonel (ret) Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army, is a decorated combat veteran, a PhD and the author of 5 books; his most recent, Margin of Victory from Naval Institute Press.

This piece was originally published by on March 4, 2018. Read more HERE.